Among the many feelings, thoughts, and emotions on September 11, 2001, I can remember asking myself, “Is this how Americans felt on December 7, 1941? Is this how we felt when we heard that there was an air raid on Pearl Harbor?” A fractured nation unified, instantly, and then marched relentlessly to victory. December 7 is the dreadful day that launched one of the most glorious and courageous episodes in American history. We call the generation that fought that just war the “greatest generation” for good reason.
On September 11, a fractured nation unified, instantly, and we went to war within days. The echoes of December 7 were unmistakable. But the narrative was never going to be the same. It couldn’t possibly be the same. Even in those first days, President Bush recognized the difference. He warned us of the difference. In his speech to Congress he said, “Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest.”
But none of us really knew what it meant to fight an enemy that would never surrender, that would never stop trying to find a way to kill Americans. So, here we are, 18 years later, still at war. Yes, previous military successes have meant that our footprint is much lighter than it was than the heights of the Afghan and Iraq conflicts, but American troops are still fighting and dying in the nation that launched the 9/11 attacks. They’re still fighting and dying in the lands that are tainted with ISIS’s presence.
We’re weary now. We’re drained of false hope and misplaced idealism. We’ve endured the consequences of George W. Bush’s idealism about our “friends” — that they were at least somewhat ready for democracy and that removing terrible tyrants would allow freedom to flourish. Instead — particularly in Iraq — ripping away the tyrant (with insufficient forces to keep the peace) unleashed horrific sectarian violence.
We’ve also endured the consequences of Barack Obama’s misplaced idealism about our enemies — his hope that they were but a tiny few extremists who would marginalized in the wider Muslim world if only America reset its relationships in the Middle East. His administration withdrew from Iraq, embraced elements of the Arab Spring, and negotiated a nuclear deal with one of our principal jihadist enemies. Yet by 2014, the world confronted the largest and most potent jihadist force in modern history.
On this 9/11 anniversary, our war-weariness shouldn’t distract us from noting and being thankful for an extremely important fact — in spite of jihadists’ plans and most fervent desires, we have not endured another attack on American soil that remotely approaches the scale of the attacks on the Pentagon or the World Trade Center. We haven’t even experienced attacks on the scale of the November 2015 ISIS assault on Paris. Our safety is not accidental. It’s not the product of luck (though we have been lucky on occasion). It’s the consequence of hard fighting and constant vigilance. The war that George Bush described to Congress on September 21 continues, and it will have to continue so long as we face an enemy that seeks to do us harm.